Is anything safe?

Public resources face new sell-off threats - but once we lose our public buildings and land, it's gone for good.

Natalie Bennett
2 July 2013

The state in Britain, in its many guises, local government, NHS, national government departments, undoubtedly has lots of resources, particularly land and buildings.

By state resources, we of course mean our resources – facilities in which there’s often been considerable public investment – community fundraising, community support, community use.

Sometimes needs might have changed - the facility, the space, might not be used in the way it has been in the past - but it is still our land, our facilities.

But possibly not for much longer – privatisation of our public resources looks likely to be accelerated by two recent government moves that significantly increase the power of the private sector, and privatisation of the NHS.

The first is a little-noticed part of last week’s Comprehensive Spending Review, worth quoting in full…

“The Government will implement a series of policy changes, including:
· a Right to Contest, which will give local communities and businesses the right to challenge the Government to release land where it is potentially surplus or redundant and can be put to better use. …
· a new Strategic Land Review, which will build on this right and invite input from industry and Local Authorities to help identify where further public sector land can be made surplus or redundant and sold to support construction and local growth.” (my emphasis)

Of course the government is keen to talk about the community side of this – and indeed the local community where I live, Somers Town in central London, has been talking about potentially using these powers to protect a much-loved community space from planned development by a local council.

But that requires a very organised, well-resourced local community that can manage years of campaigning, expensive legal fees. Something not found in many of the places where resources are most needed.

All of those resources are, however, easily available to a well-resourced developer with the light of a “big profit” sign flashing in their eyes. So any business that fancies redeveloping an old hospital site with luxury flats, or a playing field, or a youth centre less used since staff cuts, could make their case, and effectively compulsorily purchase the site. Talk about privatisation - one of the most controversial and difficult powers of the state, the power of compulsory purchase, handed over to the private sector to be used against local communities and elected representatives.

According to the Communities and Local Government department there are 16,600 hectares of “previously developed land” owned by local authorities and other public bodies. That was identified as possibly available to communities under earlier rules – now it is equally available to private developers.

Secondly, there’s a specifically NHS angle. The Health and Social Care Act transferred a large percentage of NHS buildings (as of 1 April 2013) from Primary Care Trusts to NHS Property Services, a “PropCo” in the industry jargon. This is a private company owned solely by the secretary of state, which is to be “more commercially focused” than previous arrangements, health minister Earl Howe told the Lords.

He noted also that one “job” of PropCo is to “dispose of property surplus to NHS requirements”. 'Surplus' in this context includes empty buildings (often paid for pre-NHS and dearly loved by the local community) but also - potentially - those which are judged to have more than 50% administrative staff - which includes a lot of clinics. Already PropCo has sharply increased the rents the local NHS has to pay for the latter.

(This issue was covered in greater detail when the legislation was coming through last year by the Skwawkbox blog.)

This government’s ideological commitment to a smaller state, at great cost to our poorer and more vulnerable citizens, is all too evident in their slashing of essential services, important functions and large numbers of employees. But it’s important to focus too on the loss of assets that’s accompanying these cuts.

Once a hospital is converted to luxury flats, a local sports field turned into an office block, council chambers made a fancy function centre, we’re never going to get them back. And it’s going to be extraordinarily difficult to find the resources to replace them.


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